Elden Ring should have an easy mode.
Now, most will find that statement uncontroversial: who wouldn’t want the latest gaming phenomenon to be experienced by as many people as possible? Sure, interactive accessibility has a long way to go, but there have been great strides made in recent years to give players of varying capabilities the chance to see stories through.
But that isn’t how From Software does things: this office software turned gaming pioneer is notorious for the denseness of its releases. While previously known for the mech action series Armored Core, the company’s cultural cachet increased massively after empowering relative newcomer Hidetaka Miyazaki to create a new subgenre of action role-playing games since dubbed “Souls-likes.” 2009’s Demon’s Souls, a PlayStation 3 exclusive whose remake would be the killer app for the PlayStation 5’s launch 11 years later, laid much of the groundwork for what would come, but it remained fairly niche on its own. The follow-up, 2011’s Dark Souls, would change video games forever.
It’s hard to deny the impact that the game has had on modern development. Its DNA is now found in everything from indie darlings to the latest Star Wars game: dense, mysterious, and interconnected levels full of monsters who can and will kill you if you don’t master the intricacies of their combat. And Miyazaki has kept things rolling himself: Bloodborne, Dark Souls III (he only supervised the first sequel), Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and now Elden Ring. All beautiful, brutal, and beloved.
For some people, the Souls-like experience verges on spiritual, and those people are as savage to detractors as any fundamentalist. “Git gud” (“get good”) is a common refrain thrown at normies who wish they could get into the series but lack the patience, time or skill to really connect. After a games journalist openly acknowledged using mods to help him beat Sekiro’s final boss, a viral tweet chastised him: “You not only cheated the game but yourself,” which… okay dude.
Elden Ring will make people like that very happy: it is another beautiful, inscrutable game filled with vicious monsters ready to steamroll you. But what of the rest, the normies? The folks who might want to see what the crazy is about but understandably don’t like the idea of screaming in frustration at their television for dozens of hours. What, if anything, does Elden Ring have for them?
Honestly? Not a whole lot… at least in terms of gameplay, but perhaps some enjoyment to be found in the world itself.
Elden Ring’s mythology was created in collaboration with Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, whose only previous game-writing experience came with the critically-panned 2012 adaptation of his series. Though his role in Elden Ring’s creation was about forming the world and its history rather than directly influencing the game’s story, he is clearly a fan of where the company took his ideas.
As you might expect, it involves a lot of high-fantasy gibberish: you are a “Tarnished” who has entered the world long after it’s been destroyed by The Shattering, a war caused by the shattering of the Elden Ring. Many have made efforts to reform the Ring and failed—you will not, assuming you’re willing to dedicate the many days of your life that will be required to see the task through. Hard-to-pronounce names and huge historical events get referenced constantly in the minimal bits of dialogue and there’s no in-game way of keeping track of any of it, requiring all but the most deeply invested to eventually end up at the fan-made Wiki to figure out who it was they’d just been talking to and also if they should really care.
But they don’t really need to. Clearly, a lot of thought and effort went into the creation of all this, but you rarely need to engage with the story during regular play. For better and worse, Elden Ring plays a whole lot like Dark Souls with some fun twists. There are ten different classes to start from, each of which can change the experience pretty fundamentally, but no matter what you choose: battles are about spacing and timing. Knowing when to roll, to block, to parry, to strike, to item, to magic.
And I’ll admit to being a little flip before: the combat in Elden Ring is deeply satisfying once you’ve gotten familiar with it. It’s not the most intuitive thing, especially when trying to juggle secondary weapons and items, but when it’s just you and some Eldritch abomination you’ve been dying to kill for the past 30 minutes as you’ve slowly chipped away more and more of its health with each passing attempt, it starts to click. Suddenly, you realize you’ve got it on the ropes. Your heart starts to race—this could be it! But you also know that a single mistimed roll or failed parry could result in a combo that ends it all in seconds. You keep on going, trying not to lose your patience and run in when you need to back away… and when you do it, when you’re the one to deal that final blow and fell the enemy, it feels amazing. That’s why people love these games. I totally get it, even if I don’t understand the weird gatekeeping over it.
What really distinguishes Elden Ring from its Souls predecessors is the world: the “Lands Between” are quite a bit different than previous FromSoft locales: it doesn’t stray as far away as Sekiro did, what with its stylized take on historical Japanese architecture, but Elden Ring sees you riding your ghost-horse through grassy fields as often as failing to progress through the castles and crypts strewn around it. There is much more color in the world than we’re used to, and while some of those earlier games have been open world-adjacent, allowing you to chart your own course along a series of interconnected paths, Elden Ring is a much more typical implementation.
“You keep on going, trying not to lose your patience and run in when you need to back away… and when you do it, when you’re the one to deal that final blow and fell the enemy, it feels amazing. That’s why people love these games.”
It’s got an Elder Scrolls vibe, like a post-apocalyptic Skyrim with way less dialogue and much better combat, and I think folks who spent hundreds of hours in that game could easily do the same thing here. After a brief tutorial where you’re given far more information than you can realistically process, you are thrust out onto a high-up cliff, where you can see far into the distance the places you’ll soon go. It’s massive—almost shockingly so. There was a moment when I accidentally opened a trap near the bottom of the world that teleported me up to its top and I suddenly realized all that blank space on the map screen wasn’t just weird design—it was a sign of how much I had yet to see. There is just so much here, and were it not for last week’s release of the stunning Horizon: Forbidden West, it would almost certainly be the best open world of the new generation.
And I think that’s where people who may not be enamored with the combat can still find something to latch onto, because there’s a definite joy in the act of exploration divorced from enemy encounters, and it feels a little less high stakes than its predecessors. Sure, you could always run past monsters you didn’t want to engage with, but it’s a much less intimidating prospect when you’re on a horse. And though you can’t avoid combat entirely, a lot of encounters in the open world can be brute-forced by riding in tight circles around your opponent while you hit them with your weapon. And those that can’t, well, just accept that death will come and try to find the humor in it. I definitely laughed the first time I accidentally summoned a dragon that in one blow dealt 50% more damage than I had hit points.
That said, I wouldn’t actually recommend playing Elden Ring if you’re concerned about the combat being too tough unless you’ve got hours and hours to practice, because otherwise it will be. That’s just how these games are, and I wish it wasn’t so black-and-white. I understand that creating a new difficulty mode and trying to properly balance the whole thing is a rather laborious task, but that’s not the only option for improving the experience for the less devout. Straight-up invincibility would be great for would-be explorers, but perhaps something akin to the “God Mode” in the critically beloved Hades could work here: each time the player dies in that game while the mode is enabled, the damage they take the next run is reduced by 2% for as long as they have it active, up to an 80% reduction. It’s not being forced on anyone, and it allows players to reach their own equilibrium where the game is challenging in a satisfying rather than frustrating way.
For me, Elden Ring swung wildly between those descriptors. This is perhaps an inevitable result of open world design, because either every enemy needs to be exactly as difficult as every other, or your ability to take on baddies in a near-random order could have you, like me, die numerous times to your first four sets of bosses in hidden catacombs and then clear the fifth entirely on your first try. I think I was supposed to hit that one first. Whoops!
But playing the game now, while everyone else is jumping on, makes it all a little more approachable by creating community engagement in a generally solo affair. Though it is possible to actually join other games for individual battles to help or harm other players, you’ll spend more time with remnants of other players strewn across the world. This has long been a part of FromSoft’s design, but coming up to a treasure chest and seeing one note from a player saying “It’s a trap” and another saying “That guy’s lying, it’s not a trap” makes for a more lively experience, whether it’s a trap or not. And so does seeing the white ghosts of other players who are at that very moment in the same part of the map you are just, ya know, doing their thing. The world is also littered with bloodstains, which can be touched to show you a red ghost of another player’s last few seconds.
Sometimes, this is just funny, like watching someone accidentally steer their horse off a cliff. Other times, it’s useful, like seeing them react to an invisible trap that you now know is coming around the corner. At times, it made me feel better about my own failings because I’d made it through an area covered in blood splatters without leaving any of my own. And the first time I checked a note after beating a boss to see “You did it!!!” pop up onscreen, that was nice! Heck, it was still nice the dozenth time.
But I know that I’m eventually going to reach a point where the timing is too tight and the battle too drawn out. Where I just can’t do it anymore because I can’t dedicate my life to a virtual sword. Sadly, I’m not “gud” enough at Elden Ring. But looking at the time I’ve spent with it, I’m already good.